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Interzone #194 / The 3rd Alternative #39

Interzone #194
The 3rd Alternative #39
Interzone, Britain's leading science-fiction and fantasy magazine, founded in 1982, has now reached almost 200 issues. Short-listed for the Hugo Award many years running, and a Hugo winner in 1995, it has a high reputation around the world.

Interzone has published short stories by many of the big names of the field, from Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard to Ian Watson and Gene Wolfe, but its particular strength has been in the nurturing of newer writers.

Interzone Website

The 3rd Alternative
The 3rd Alternative is published quarterly. This high-quality production contains cutting-edge speculative fiction, features and interviews. The 3rd Alternative has won several awards, including the prestigious British Fantasy Awards for "Best Magazine" and "Best Short Story" (Martin Simpson's "Dancing About Architecture," from TTA #11).

The 3rd Alternative Website

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

As anyone who watches this space already knows, David Pringle has transferred editorship of Interzone magazine to Andy Cox, publisher of The 3rd Alternative. Welcome news that the longstanding British SF magazine wasn't folding, but also worrying if Interzone can be the same without Pringle.

Well, of course, it won't. Arguably, some fresh perspective was overdue. However, the more immediate concern is whether Cox has a vision of Interzone distinct from that of The 3rd Alternative. Pringle's farewell editorial promised readers that Interzone would retain its focus on science fiction, not the fantasy, horror and slipstream that characterizes (and inspires the title of) The 3rd Alternative. As I've remarked elsewhere, this was particularly odd given that virtually all of the contents of Pringle's last issue would have comfortably fit under The 3rd Alternative aegis. Equally odd is that while Cox editorializes about how the acquisition of Interzone may affect the future of The 3rd Alternative in its current issue (#39 Autumn 2004), there's no corresponding manifesto in the inauguration of his new "other" magazine (#194 September/October 2004).

Is Interzone simply to become the science fiction version of The 3rd Alternative? Of course, it's too early to tell, but the first issue under Cox's tutelage indicates that may be the case. Though I'm not altogether certain if that's necessarily a bad thing.

What's initially striking about Cox's Interzone is a long overdue overhaul of poor graphical design. That said, the other thing striking about it is, besides a few nuances, how much it looks like an issue of The 3rd Alternative. What adds to the similarities is the decision to forego The 3rd Alternative's typical matte cover page in favor of the same glossy paper shared with Interzone. This may be the result of cost savings achieved through printing synergies, but it does tend to make the two publications less distinguishable.

Of course, it's content that matters (indeed, magazines such as Asimov's and Fantasy and Science Fiction owe their longstanding success to the authors they publish, certainly not to generally unimaginative cover artwork and cheap interior paper). So, how do the two issues compare in terms of what really matters? Well, while there is a distinctive genre difference, even if more subtle in the case of Interzone, there's also considerable overlap.

(While I will focus on the fiction, it should be noted that both publications contain the respective columns their readership might expect. No immediate plans, evidently, to change there. Suffice it to say that Peter Crowther does debut with a new column in Interzone on comic books and graphic novels, and the decision to move David Langford's "Ansible Link" to the front of the book is sensible.)

In The 3rd Alternative, it's no coincidence that guest editorialist Paula Guran attempts to define horror by defining what it really isn't -- "ordinary schlock confined to the expectation of the derivative" -- since this anti-definition characterizes the tales that follow. To start off, Nina Allan's "Monsters" seems to be about the monsters we face both of our own creation and forces beyond our control. I say "would seem" because I'm not sure if her deliberate obfuscation serves the art or the artifice. Allan depicts some sort of virtual reality (and which said premise perhaps might qualify it as the only story here to crossover to Interzone) the protagonist, Noah, has particular aptitude in inhabiting. It's never quite clear, presumably by design, when Noah is in the "artificial" reality or the "real" one. Noah is shadowed by a man who resembles "Vincent Falkenberg," a character in a book she once read by "Magdalen Sheldon." This obscured reference to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the classic SF horror story that spawned the field, hints that the "real" reality of the story is actually an alternate universe to that of the reader's. I admit to getting lost frequently by the narrative (which, again, is probably the intention) and I'm not sure that the powerful payback of the ending necessarily warrants the work of wading through it all. On the other hand, I'd rather read a story that makes you work at figuring it out as opposed to one that merely pulls all the familiar levers, which is precisely the sort of generic horror Guran disdains.

"The Black Phone" by Joe Hill calls up a cathartic ending to a child abduction that is as disturbing as its subject matter. Along similar lines, in Mike Driscoll's "If I Should Wake Before I Die," a serial murderer apparently about to avenge himself on the stepparents he blames for his pathological proclivities receives the promise of redemption from his victims, in particular a former girlfriend named, too obviously, "Grace." Christopher Barzak depicts "A Resurrection Artist" who, as the title implies, "makes a living" getting killed by his audiences, some of whom feel cheated because of his ability to recover from otherwise fatal wounds; the artist's redemption lies in a possibly final performance for a non-paying audience of one interested in something everyone else misses.

All of these stories have a fantastical premise grounded in the horrific. In contrast, the horror of Susan Fry's "Father Gregori's Relic" is the reality of how human beings can allow a willful fantasy to harm others. Chilling primarily because it's so real, and, unfortunately, so true today.

With the possible exception of Allan's "Monsters," these stories would be out of place in the type of SF magazine Pringle wants to see continued. But while all the Interzone stories are grounded in some science fictional conceit, they're amply flavored with an atmosphere of weirdness you wouldn't find in, say, Stephen Baxter, that would easily fit in The 3rd Alternative ethos. It'd be interesting to know if the Interzone selections came from an existing backlog handed to him by Pringle or were solicited by Cox.

In "Song of the Earth," Steve Mohn provides a provoking prism on the idea of how humans can hope to inhabit alien ecologies in applying Darwinism to bioengineering. Mohn does an impressive job in portraying a social order in which genetically altered humans climb a "Call Tree" which endows them with some trait or ability necessary to develop future generations more adaptable to a planetary ecology. A character who resists her "calling" turns out to be the key to a dramatic transformation in the biological order. At first, the ending struck me as a letdown after an impressive build-up. But the more I thought about it, the more I appreciated the subtle textures. Key to understanding the tale is that a creature called a Gnostic is destroyed in the course of helping to midwife the transformation, and later appears in a new incarnation as a monkey. (The Gnostics were an early Christian sect that disavowed the need for a formal priesthood to commune with God and was, subsequently, crushed out of existence by the political powers of the emerging institutional church; the monkey reference should be self-evident, as should the role of blood, from both biological and theological standpoints.)

"Enlightenment," as you might expect from the title, is a spiritual undertaking by a member of a brutal planetary occupation force who "goes native" in which Douglas Smith provides a riff on Ray Bradbury's famous rationale of space travel: for Man to find God in the cosmos. The space travel trope is actually incidental and perhaps doesn't qualify the story as science fiction; however, science fictional depiction of the mistreatment of "aliens" to subvertly criticize the atrocities of imperialist colonization dates back to H.G. Wells, so, fantastical underpinnings aside, "Enlightenment" is arguably science fiction.

Karne D. Fishler ponders how "Someone Else" unknowingly becomes you thanks to some surreptitious cloning. Fishler does a nice take on this in focusing not on how identity is impaired by a copy (the more typical approach of this sort of thing), but the choices made that define identity. A particularly refreshing -- and funny -- counterbalance to all of this serious stuff is Antony Mann's "Air Cube," a look at mindless consumerism in which the satire is not all that far removed from the reality.

Perhaps the most telling way to see how Interzone and The 3rd Alternative actually differ, and to suggest perhaps how Interzone needs to evolve, is to examine the work of an author whose work appears in both. Jay Lake's "Dreams of the White City" is the cover story of Interzone, though "Daddy's Caliban" in The 3rd Alternative is by far the stronger thematically and emotionally.

Both share Lake's talent for vivid world-building and involve characters on some sort of revelatory quest. In "Dreams of the White City," Marga is an informer with a guilty conscience in the pay of a machine-controlled society. As penitence for how she has harmed innocent people, Marga plants incriminating evidence against herself. But instead of punishment, she is taken into custody by Epimetheus (and in case you don't get the reference, Lake makes sure you know the name means "afterthought"), who uses her for another more insidious purpose. Marga, however, turns the power she has been given against her oppressor and, as the story ends, takes the first step to liberate humanity from the forces of the machine. Familiar territory here, dating back to not only E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" and the aforementioned Frankenstein, not to mention the well-trodden fantasy trope of the naïve hero plucked from obscurity to change the fate of the kingdom and its people. But while this is all dressed up nicely, there's ultimately nothing new beneath the finery.

So here's a story with a science fictional premise, but doesn't do much with the premise beyond repeat the standard line. In contrast, the more fantastical "Daddy's Caliban" gives us a Huck Finn in an alternate reality where noble knights have been reduced to common blue-collar workers. The young narrator, who has a maybe imaginary twin (though maybe not), is intrigued by the forbidden High Tower across the river. Huck makes his journey over the river and discovers a dramatic revelation hidden in the Tower. Sounds like "the same old, same old," except that Lake undermines the expectations of the form with several surprising, thought-provoking twists. Here Lake doesn't feel compelled to spell out the significance of his symbolism and, perhaps consequently, has written a much more compelling and vivid piece of work.

For that reason alone, if you had time only to read one of these two magazines, I'd say the more rewarding investment is The 3rd Alternative.

I don't mean this to suggest that a science fictional approach is any less creative than a fantastical one (and obviously there's more than ample "fantasy-by-the-numbers" that doesn't begin to approach Lake's craft in fashioning even a mediocre SF tale). But I do wonder if Cox's taste for the bizarre might unduly influence his science fictional sensibilities where that becomes the predominant editorial qualifier. The challenge for Cox is if he can split himself to become two different editors to produce two distinctively different publications.

Certainly, Interzone has historically displayed tastes for the weird and fantasy-fueled SF of authors such as Richard Calder and Gwyneth Jones. Now, however, it may be more difficult to sort where they should end up. Of course, it's way too early to tell. In the future I'd like to see, and I'm guessing Cox does as well, that the sharp new look of Interzone is complemented by equally sharp fiction that is more than just what doesn't quite fit into The 3rd Alternative. Because that would not be a very good alternative at all.

Copyright © 2004 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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